Gellman: Let's Replace High-School Valedictorians

We are in the season of commencement, and I am happy and sad at the same time. I am happy and proud that despite our cultural predilection to give awards to bad music, worthless TV sitcoms and puerile movies, we still give awards for learning something. These moments deserve celebrations and deserve ceremonies because they remind us of the primacy of education in the moral and intellectual growth of our children. It's all good. However, for me there is one deeply depressing note in this symphony of intellectual growth, and it is seen particularly in high-school graduation ceremonies. It is the honoring of valedictorians.

Honoring the person who got the best grades in high school establishes the value of intelligence over virtue and, in the long run, it is virtue that will determine the fate of the graduates with far more precision than their grade-point averages. I am not indifferent to academic excellence, and I do not mean to demean in any way the diligence and sacrifice of those students who actually take their studies seriously. But by sticking the kid who never got a B in front of the class at graduation, we make a collective statement that it is grades that we prize most as a culture—and that is one of the reasons our culture is in trouble. Getting the highest grades is just an entry-level drug to getting the highest salary and then to cooking the books to keep the stock price high, as at Enron, and then to jail. By transforming education into a grab for quantifiable returns, we produce a culture of grubby cheaters, plagiarizers and criminals who get the only barely twisted message that the bottom line is all that matters. I once asked a graduating class of M.B.A.s if they thought that cheating in business, though morally wrong, would make them more money, and virtually all of them said yes. Morality cannot always triumph over such cynicism.

Ironically, the cancer of cheating to get good grades affects our best kids the most. The kids running at the back of the pack are less likely to cheat to get a C rather than a D or a B rather than a C. But with their chances to stand up at graduation at stake, the temptations for our brightest kids to cheat their way to the front of the valedictorian line are too much for many of them to resist. I once spoke to the 4.0 club at a high school, and these kids had already divided their group of kids who never got a B into two groups: the ones who got all As honestly and the ones who were known cheaters. Many students matriculating at so-called elite colleges admit to have been regular cheaters in high school. Cheating is so common that there are now sophisticated software programs to help teachers discover if the outstanding essay they are grading was written by an Internet cheating service.

So my modest suggestion is that instead of a valedictorian, whose virtue and honesty cannot be definitively confirmed, high schools ought to select a menschadictorian to give the graduation keynote speech. A menschadictorian is the student who showed the most moral virtue during his or her high-school years. The Yiddish word mensch is untranslatable, but at the very least it means a person who is good not just on the surface but all the way through his or her bones. A mensch is the kind of good person who ends fights, embraces the outcast, organizes children of privilege to help children of neglect. A mensch is the kid who has achieved not an elevated academic achievement but an elevated human achievement. These mensches are the ones who not only deserve to be honored but also deserve to be heard. We should be hearing from our best kids—not just from our smartest or craftiest or most sycophantic kids.

I would have nominated Jacob to be the menschadictorian of his class.

Jacob (not his real name) had multiple sclerosis, but by diligence, training and guts he could ride a bike. One day as he had stopped into a local supermarket to get a bottle of water for his ride, he saw a homeless man who was dirty and smelly enter the store with a sack of cans and bottles to redeem. The manager of the store yelled at the homeless man and kicked him out of the store, not allowing him to cash in his cans and bottles. The man weakly pleaded with the manager saying that he needed the money for food and that it was very hot outside and could he please just redeem the cans and bottles and then he would leave. The manager threw him into the parking lot scattering his aluminum and plastic treasure onto the hot asphalt. Jacob was watching this and immediately started helping the man pick up the cans and bottles and stuff them back into the torn plastic bag.

Jacob then took them back into the store and redeemed them himself and brought the money back to the man who was sitting in the gutter crying. Jacob then took the man with him to a pizza place. Jacob loved pizza. The owner of the pizza place refused to allow the homeless man to enter the store, and so Jacob bought a whole pie and some garlic knots and a big salad and some soda and the two of them sat in the parking lot on the curb eating supper together.

Jacob died the next week after riding his bike on a day that was just too hot. He died just before graduation. In Jacob's class there were several kids who never got a B but not a single kid who ever bought a whole pie for homeless man and ate it with him on the curb. Jacob would have been, Jacob could have been, Jacob should have been a terrific menschadictorian.